Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • NATURE PODCAST

‘Stick to the science’: when science gets political

Why does a journal of science need to cover politics? It is a question that Nature often gets asked when we publish articles covering political matters. According to some members of our audience, Nature has no place in political discussions.

But is that true? Well, our new podcast miniseries "Stick to the science" aims to find out. In three parts, we will explore the history, philosophy and reality of science’s complicated relationship with politics.

Episode 1: A brief history of politics and science

We look back at the history of the knotty relationship between science, politics and power, and ask how Nature fits in. We speak to historians, political scientists, editorial staff, even philosophers to unpick centuries of connections.

Listen in your podcast player

Episode 2: Politics of the life scientific

Politics is deeply ingrained in scientists’ working life. Be it through funding agendas, cultural lobbies or personal bias, politics can shape the game in myriad ways, influencing the direction and quality of research. But what does this mean for the objective ideals of science?

Listen in your podcast player

Episode 3: Talking politics, talking science

What role do journalists, science communicators and policymakers have in influencing how science is perceived? We discuss the danger of politicization in an increasingly divisive political landscape, and ask whether science can ever be part of the political narrative without compromising its values.

Listen in your podcast player

If you have thoughts on this series, we’d love to hear them. There’s a quick survey that you can fill out here.

Thanks for listening.

Transcript - Episode 1: A brief history of politics and science

Social media quote

Your devisive political ponderings are irrelevant. Stick to the science.

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe

Nature received this comment on Facebook after we published a story about the damage Donald Trump has done to science. Why am I sharing it with you? Well, I want to know if they’re right.

Quotes

Science and politics benefit from the perception that science is objective and separate.

Psychologists, and sociologists and historians will argue over how possible it is to completely remove yourself from that.

Saying that the two spheres should be separate I think misses the point.

Science is pure right? But, the more you get into the complex, value-laden problems of politics, the less it’s true.

Host: Nick Howe

I’m Nick Howe, and welcome to “Stick to the science” a miniseries in which I’m going to explore the relationship between science and politics. And ask where does Nature fit in?

Interviewee: Magdalena Skipper

Nature as a whole has an important role to play in that interface.[Music]

Host: Nick Howe

Now you might still be wondering why I’m talking to you about this. It seems that many of our readers think that this is a done deal – science and politics should be kept separate, and vice versa. So why talk about it? Well, the thing is, is that Nature does discuss politics, and that isn’t an accident – it is a very considered choice which we believe is the right one. And yet, when we cover things people deem ‘politics’ we tend to get quite a strong response – and we can’t just ignore that.

After-all, science and politics are not exactly easy bed-fellows.

Interviewee: Anna Jay

I'm Anna Jay, and I'm a chief editor for digital engagement for Nature magazine.

Host: Nick Howe

As the holder of the keys to Nature’s social feed, Anna is a bit like Nature’s front line when our readers have opinions – and she is well versed in the politics problem.

Interviewee: Anna Jay

So a lot of the responses that we see take place on social media and social media is its own special kind of ecosystem, where you get all kinds of people saying all kinds of things. So whenever we cover anything that touches on politics in some way, we're primed to expect a special kind of response. They kind of fall into various categories.

They're people who disagree with the politics of a particular individual or party or something along those lines, if it's an overtly political piece of content.

Social media quote

Stay out of politics, Trump 2020.

Interviewee: Anna Jay

And the other side that we often get is something in the lines of ‘Nature is a science publication, why you straying into this territory? And science is not political, science is fact.

Social media quote

Keep opinions out of a science page. This page should be about studies with empirical data!

Interviewee: Anna Jay

One of the things I think is particularly important, is being able to have empathy for your readers. And that's definitely been helpful way to think about things, when we're about to publish something to just step back and read it from someone else's position. But we can't test everything with everyone. That doesn't happen until we hit publish, and it goes out into the world. And we get the response. We’ve had missteps in the past but we try and learn from them and we try to make sure that whenever we are covering things, we're covering them for the most important angle that's the most appropriate for the scientific community that we're serving.

Host: Nick Howe

In this episode I am going to focus in on one of these assertions. The idea that politics isn’t Nature’s territory – that as a science publication political matters are simply not in scope.

Social media quotes

Stick with your nature thing, politics not your forte.

That moment, when Academia and scientific publishers become political.

Politics should not feature in Nature's aims and scope.

Host: Nick Howe

Nature is often accused of changing its approach on politics – of bowing to some new political pressure – of striving to be ‘woke’.

But dig into Nature’s archive, and the fact of the matter is that from it’s very beginning Nature has had a close relationship with politics.

Voice of Nature: Jen Musgreave

Nature, volume 1, Thursday November 4th 1869

Science Teaching in Schools

The claims of Physical Science, on à priori grounds, to a fair place in the course of school work, have been abundantly vindicated, and are, I suppose, established…

Host: Nick Howe

This is an article from the very first edition of Nature, promoting, in typical Victorian vernacular, the idea that science should be taught at schools. With 150 years of hindsight that perhaps doesn’t sound very contentious, but this was before there was any large scale-state education in the UK and existing schools were stratified by social class. In the following year, in an Editorial, Nature went further, promoting scientific education for women.

Voice of Nature: Jen Musgreave

Nature, volume 2, Thursday June 16th 1870

The Scientific Education of Women

The feature which will probably most clearly mark the year 1869 in the view of the future historian of education, will be the definite recognition of the rights of woman to all the advantages of education accorded to men…

Host: Nick Howe

Over the first 10 years Nature’s editor, Norman Lockyer, wrote around 65 editorials campaigning on political topics from: research endowments, scientific reform, the rise of German science, and education.

This type of political content was enthusiastically followed up by Nature’s second editor Sir Richard Gregory. Politics was absolutely Nature’s arena. That is until, perhaps surprisingly, World War II.

Interviewee: Melinda Baldwin

The Second World War, interestingly, has a pretty unexpected impact on the way that Nature talks about politics

Host: Nick Howe

This is Melinda Baldwin, a historian of scientific publications, who very literally wrote the book on Nature.

Interviewee: Melinda Baldwin

So in 1939, right before the start of the Second World War, Nature gets two new editors, Sir Richard Gregory retires, and his former assistants, AJV Gale, and Jack Brimble, become co-editors of Nature. And so almost immediately, Brimble and Gale are thrown into the crucible of having to publish Nature during the war. So London is being bombed, there are paper shortages. And so they're just kind of constantly running Nature in crisis mode.

Host: Nick Howe

This would be the start of Nature’s one and only, apolitical phase.

Interviewee: Melinda Baldwin

They start supporting an editorial regime that tends not to take political stances. And I think it's because they learned to run Nature in this crisis mode, that they just don't have the time to court and manage the kind of controversy that Lockyer and Gregory had sought out and supported.

Host: Nick Howe

Whether out of resource strapped necessity or editorial providence, Gale and Brimble’s apolitical stance continued for almost thirty years. Until 1966.

Interviewee: Melinda Baldwin

When John Maddox comes into the into the editor's chair. Maddox is a physicist, he comes from a journalist's background. And Maddox really sees an opportunity to shake things up at Nature, and make it exciting to read again, and he wants to do that in a couple of ways. First off, he wants to recruit the most exciting scientific papers to Nature, that are going to create a stir, that are going to attract interest that are going to attract subscribers. And he also really wants to enliven the news sections and get them taking stances again. So Maddox actively courts the kind interest in controversy that Brimble and Gale avoided.

Host: Nick Howe

Now this appetite for controversy certainly wasn’t shared by all of Maddox’s successors. But Nature never resumed the apolitical stance of the mid-20th Century. Right up, to today.Interviewee: Magdalena Skipper

When science is threatened by politics we will stand up for science and scientists.

Host: Nick Howe

This is Magdalena Skipper, Nature’s current editor-in-chief.

Interviewee: Magdalena Skipper

Nature is a journal of science of research, first and foremost. As such, it doesn't have a specific a specific political allegiance or a political agenda. But we do talk politics, we do cover politics, when politics affects research only in the context of research. If politics and politicians, curb scientific autonomy, let's say, unduly influence its direction, and remove their support of experts or expertise, or maybe thwart global collaborations. Science itself suffers. And, and it's at times like this, that Nature needs to stand up for science, for the experts.

Host: Nick Howe

This stance goes all the way back to Nature’s mission statement, which has broadly remained the same for the past 151 years.

Voice of Nature: Jen Musgreave

First, to serve scientists through prompt publication of significant advances in any branch of science, and to provide a forum for the reporting and discussion of news and issues concerning science. Second, to ensure that the results of science are rapidly disseminated to the public throughout the world, in a fashion that conveys their significance for knowledge, culture and daily life.

Interviewee: Magdalena Skipper

There's a bit in the mission statement where it speaks to us offering a forum for a discussion of issues that are pertaining to science. And so that's exactly what policy is, and of course, arguably now more than ever, we talk about why science and research and discoveries including medical research are so relevant for policymaking. And why policymaking has to be evidence based. And of course, that evidence is provided by science. So absolutely, we don't just talk about research itself and the outcome of research as an an activity. We talk about the implications. So these are all issues which are immediately adjacent to science as an activity. But nevertheless, in my view, inseparable.

Voice of Nature: Jen Musgreave

Nature, volume 586, Tuesday 6th October 2020.

Why Nature needs to cover politics now more than ever.

Science and politics are inseparable — and Nature will be publishing more politics news, comment and primary research in the coming weeks and months…

Host: Nick Howe

With a few exceptions, Nature has always been involved in the political debate and has reported on politics. From Nature’s perspective, it is nothing new, and it remains as much a part of our editorial goals as ever. But, of course, that is only one part of this puzzle. For many of you, whether Nature or not covers politics really isn’t the question – instead, the real question is, should it? When does politics become relevant to science?That’s coming up next.

[Music]

Quotes

Historians of science tend to reject the argument that science is apolitical.

So was there a connection between science and politics? There was an intimate connection.

Politics shapes science in a whole bunch of ways, right?I don't believe that science exists in a vacuum.

The assumption that they are separate is not I think a helpful one.

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe

For the rest of this episode I am going to focus on one idea. Separation. The idea that science and scientific institutions are fundamentally separate from politics and political institutions. And furthermore, that there should be a divide – the proverbial church and state.To the heart of this, again, I am going to start by looking back. Here’s Steven Shapin, a historian of science from Harvard University in the US.

Interviewee: Steven Shapin

I think the ideal in terms of deep historical past probably comes from the idea of religious separation from the world as a way of producing authentic and valuable knowledge. And here, it's very important to bear in mind that the first universities, are religious institutions, the cloisters of Oxford, and Cambridge are cloisters. So they're a visible reminder of that separation from the world. So it's an ideal.

Host: Nick Howe This separation ideal comes up a lot when Nature covers politics.

Social media quotes

My bad, I was always under the impression science was about the discovery of truth. Didn't understand it was about politically corrected truth. Sad.

Science is objective and evidence-based. The scientist doesn't matter as much as the evidence they present.

Host: Nick Howe

But according to Steven, the idea that science and politics were separate throughout history is murky at best – for him – even the concept of what a government or a state is, is inseparable from science.

Interviewee: Steven Shapin

You think of things like maps, think of things like statistics, how many people, what kinds of people, what diseases and they suffer from? What do they die from? This is what it is to be a state. And it's also what it is to do science.

Host: Nick Howe

And Steven is not alone in his position. Here is David Edgerton, a historian from King’s College London.

Interviewee: David Edgerton

The assumption that they are separate is not I think a helpful one. Now, of course, I'm not saying science and policy, academic research and policy are the same thing, clearly they are not. But the assumption that there is this thing called science which is independent from but sometimes interacts with politics or policy is more wrong. We need to recognize that I mean, going back to the very beginnings of modern science, as it comes to be called, the connections between this particular kind of knowledge and the state are intimate.

Interviewee: Steven Shapin

You know the expression that scientists are on tap, but not one top? They’re on tap for centuries. One of the major sources of both problems and support for scientific inquiry in the early modern period in Britain is the Admiralty. And this absorbs enormous amounts of science. And it's Samuel Pepys, the diarist who is also Clerk of the Admiralty in the seventeenth-century, and he is at the time president of the Royal Society. His name is on the title page of the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Isaac Newton. So that relationship was intimate.

Host: Nick Howe This continues across the world right up to the twentieth-century.

Interviewee: Steven Shapin

So the Manhattan Project, which is probably the greatest technoscientific project of the twentieth-century, happens within government. It's not a question of relationship between politics and science. Science is happening within the state, within the political structure of the state.

Host: Nick Howe

And yet, despite centuries of documented intimacy between science and state, the ideal of clean separation persists. Why?

Well, perhaps the answers lies in the word ‘should’. It isn’t about what actually happens, it is about what should happen. But who decides what science’s relationship with politics should be? Many of the comments we receive talk about the ‘fact’ that science is objective and so science ‘shouldn’t’ talk politics because politics is not objective. But what ‘science is’ well that’s a slippery thing when you try and pin it down. How do you define science? That’s coming up.

[Music]

Quotes

Oh, my God, all our certainties have completely crumbled.

To cut a long story short, the term ‘science’ has got a kind of a robust but problematic meaning at present.

You have to kind of agree by particular rules of behaviour. You might sign up to particular philosophies, for example pursuit of truth.

Host: Nick Howe

While reporting this series – I’ve spoken to a lot of people – researchers, journalists, political scientists, historians, policy experts – and I’ve asked them what science is. And across the board, well you get answers like this:

Quotes

Well.. that’s.. that’s kind of a big question.

I ermm.. well… what is science?

So answering the question of what is science is particularly challenging.

Maybe you’re saying science is what scientists do, but that then invites the question of ‘what is a scientist?’

Host: Nick Howe When people can’t even agree on what something even is – I thought it best to turn to a specialist, someone who’s thought a lot about this sort of question. A philosopher.

Interviewee: Chiara Ambrosio

So I do pose this question at the beginning of my courses to my first year students, and of course, they all have a very clear cut opinionated view of what is science. And by the end of the course, they are all like, ‘Oh, my God, all our certainties have completely crumbled.’

Host: Nick Howe

This is Chiara Ambrosio, a philosopher and historian of science. This problem of ‘what is science’ is known in philosophy as the demarcation problem – how do you find the edge of where science begins and ends? There isn’t a really clearly agreed upon answer, but many think that in practice ‘you’ll know science when you see it’. This is based on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Interviewee: Chiara Ambrosio

So Wittgenstein would say, think about the word ‘game’, it's really hard to define what counts as a game, you've got very different kinds of games, you know, card games, bowl games, table games, and we know when we're playing a game whilst we're playing it. And we sort of work out the rules of the game. And of course, we can establish family resemblances between different kinds of games without reducing the one to the other. And this kind of idea has been sort of adopted into current attempts at defining science.

Host: Nick Howe

Regardless of science’s fluid definition, there are some core concepts. Namely, objectivity and empiricism.

Interviewee: Chiara Ambrosio

They are absolutely crucial they are, I would never dare to deny that.

Host: Nick Howe

The problem is that both objectivity and empiricism become somewhat unobtainable when we consider humans are performing science. It’s impossible for humans to be completely objective, we are fallible creatures. And as for empiricism, – well that is another word with a tricky definition. It’s got a long history and has meant different things to different people at different times.

Interviewee: Chiara Ambrosio

So then you need to go one step down, and you need to think about why is it that scientists are actually investing so much in objectivity, and I think it's more about a matter of accountability. It's a matter of transparency, it is a matter of, again, like responding to a social context that requires accountable explanations, and accountable modeling practices, for example. And I think that's where negotiating what is the best way to decide which values we pursue as a scientific community becomes very, very important

Host: Nick Howe

In science there is a process that aspires to objectivity and empiricism – often referred as the scientific method. This allows scientists to be transparent and say ‘this is what our best understanding of this is, and this is why we think that’. It’s then there for other scientists to probe and challenge.

The process though, is inseparable from the institutions and people who are a part of it.

Interviewee: Chiara Ambrosio

Even just how even just the architecture of a building somehow affects the kind of science that is carried out in that building.

Host: Nick Howe

It’s difficult to characterise science without including the people and places where it is done. But those people and places exist in society, which is shaped by politics and so, by extension, is science.

Interviewee: Chiara Ambrosio

Scientists are not just these neutral characters that kind of levitate like ghosts in the corridor of scientific institutions, they're actually like human beings with their own political convictions with their own political ideas. And however objective you will try to be, of course, you will not even start the research program, if you don't sort of believe in what that means to you from a political as well as from a scientific point of view.

Host: Nick Howe

We aren’t going to get to the bottom of what science is in this podcast. But let’s just say that when I say science I mean all of it – the whole system – from the objective ideals of empiricism right the way through to the fallible squishy scientists talking about their experiments down the pub.But asking what we mean when we say science is only half the picture here – we also have to ask what is politics? And again that is a slippery thing to define, but after talking to some political scientists there does seem to be a very broad definition that they agree on. Here’s Shobita Parthasarathy, a researcher of science and policy at the University of Michigan – you’re going to hear a lot from Shobita throughout this series.

Interviewee: Shobita Parthasarathy

So politics, generally speaking, is really about power. And it's about power dynamics, relationships of power. And when we think about it in the context of decision making, then we're really talking about people who are maneuvering in order to gain power or maintain it, sometimes also exert it, reinforce it. And often, they're doing that on the basis of their particular interests. We talked about interest, whether their economic interests or political interests, and sometimes they're just really about the differences in values.

Host: Nick Howe

Now, it would be impossible to argue that there aren’t power-dynamics within the world of science – just check out any lab meeting that’s going on. But there is still something about empiricism and objectivity which sticks to science, which gives it a separate identity.

And that identity has been used to argue that science should have some, at least perceived, objective independence from everything else – by which I mean ‘politics’. Here’s Shobita again.

Interviewee: Shobita Parthasarathy

Science and politics benefit from the perception that science is objective, and separate. Because that means that politicians can say, science agrees with me, this objective evidence, this objective knowledge is on my side, right. And that's distance. And so therefore, I am more authoritative in my decision for that reason. And you see that early on in the COVID crisis, for example, Boris Johnson was often using that kind of language, right, so performs that sort of function. And by the same token, science also benefits from appearing objective, because it appears authoritative.

Host: Nick Howe

And in recent history the value of this perception has been demonstrated by the way scientists wanted state funding to work. Here’s science historian and science communication researcher, Bruce Lewenstein.

Interviewee: Bruce Lewenstein

So coming out of World War II scientists were making a rhetorical argument that science should be independent of politics. And they were doing that partly because they believe there to be an overlap in the ideals of science and what was seen as the winning side of the war, the western democracies that won the war. But partly because, as with any group, they wanted to protect their funding, they wanted to have control of their funding. There was a lot of pushback from legislators, but it took five years to produce what's now called the National Science Foundation. And much of that time was the dispute over who would control the funding.

Host: Nick Howe

In the end, there was a compromise, the NSF became sort of quasi-independent. Independent scientists decide what is funded, but the President still appoints the board. Around the world, similar compromises of varying degrees were made and organisations like that of the National Science Foundation in the US sprung up, think about the research councils in the UK or the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in India. These agencies act as intermediaries – helping to direct state funding. But the compromises they were founded upon and the fact the government is giving them the money is a big stumbling block for independent science.

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe

As much as researcher’s may want independence from political systems – as much as they may seek separation – they are people. People that need to get on in the world, and people that need to make a living – and when money is involved, well, that’s a whole other episode. Next time.

Interviewee: Bruce Lewenstein

Science would like to be independent. Scientists like the argument that they are independent of politics. And yet, insofar as their funding comes through political processes, they are fundamentally… I mean, it's just it's inescapable that science and politics are intertwined. If your funding comes through the political system.

Interviewee: Steven Shapin

As they say, in Scotland, ‘Who pays the Piper calls the tune.”

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe This episode was produced by me Nick Howe, with editing from Noah Baker and Benjamin Thompson. It featured contributions from many people including Shobita Parthasarathy, Alice Bell, Dan Sarewitz, Anna Jay, Melinda Baldwin, Magdalena Skipper, Steven Shapin, David Edgerton, Deborah Blum, Bruce Lewenstein and Chiara Ambrosio. Quotes from social media were read by: Shamini Bundell, Flora Graham, Dan Fox, Edie Edmundson and Bredan Maher. And excerpts from Nature were read by Jen Musgreave. Thanks for listening.

Transcript - Episode 2: Politics of the life scientific

Interviewee: Mayana Zatz

The funding for research is going down every year.

Host: Nick Howe

This is Mayana Zatz, a geneticist based in São Paulo, Brazil.

Interviewee: Mayana Zatz

São Paulo state, is responsible for 40% of the publications in Brazil. And very recently, there is a proposal, a bill, that want to reduce the funding.

Host: Nick Howe

And what do you think will be the effects if this bill did pass?

Interviewee: Mayana Zatz

Certainly, it won't have any approval of new projects during probably the next two more years. I am afraid that many scholarships could be interrupted. We have young scientists that are brilliant, and they are going away, because they are trying to have better conditions to research.

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe

I’m Nick Howe and welcome to “Stick to the science”. This is the second in a three-part series Nature is making about science and politics. Last time, we looked to the past, exploring the intertwined history of science and politics. But in this episode, we’re focusing on today. If you are a scientist working right now, what role does politics play in your work, your research, and your life?

After all, scientists are human.

Interviewee: Shobita Parthasarathy

They're equally part of society and politics.

Host: Nick Howe

This is Shobita Parthasarathy who you might remember from the last episode, she’s a researcher of science and policy.

Interviewee: Shobita Parthasarathy

Politics shapes science in a whole bunch of ways, right? It really affects everything in the lab, and we don't necessarily think about it. So, for example, governments have funding priorities. And so, whether it's the government doing the funding, or research councils, charities, universities, companies, there's some sort of interests and so influence and power dynamic. And so you're going to have politics.

Host: Nick Howe

To put it bluntly, money makes things messy. But it is important. In fact, funding is so important to the every-day life of a scientists that I am going to dedicate the best part of this episode to it. The fact is that if you want to get on in the world of science today in almost all cases you need funding but with funding comes a lot of well, politics.

Let’s get back to Mayana Zatz – the Brazilian geneticist we heard from at the start of this episode. Back on the 13th of August – a bill was introduced by the Brazilian government which is seeking to reallocate research funds from São Paulo state, to fill a shortfall in the government’s budget that has been caused by the COVID response. According to Mayana, this bill stands to decimate Brazilian research.

Interviewee: Mayana Zatz

If we don't have the money, we have to restrict our questions. We won't be able to address all the questions we want. And certainly, then the quality of the research won’t be the same.

Mayana isn’t just worried about her paychecks, she is worried about how this bill could impact every aspect of her and her colleagues’ research – from the quality of their analyses down to the core questions they are even able to ask.

Interviewee: Mayana Zatz

And so if this bill is approved, it would be a big problem, a big loss for our research in São Paulo. So that's something that we are really worried about because when I was talking about this concern that we have now, people said well, but if you don't have money for São Paulo, are you going to have more federal funds? I said, Well, just the other way around. San Paolo was the place where I could continue to research despite the big cutting inference from federal funds.

Host: Nick Howe

Political decisions about funding can make or break scientist’s careers. Mayana is worried about the security of Brazilian science full stop, but the impact of funding isn’t always that extreme, sometimes it is more a case of influence. Take governments, for example.

Interviewee: Shobita Parasarathy

They‘ll say, ‘we wanna fund the Human Genome Project or the Brain Initiative’, right. So there's that level of kind of priority setting. Or you just have the structure of, for example, in the United States, the National Institutes of Health has separate institutes. And so they're gonna fund in a particular sort of way, projects that each of those institute's care about

Host: Nick Howe

And sometimes these priorities aren’t just about the scientific or academic interests of an institution – sometimes funding goals are explicitly political. Here’s Michael Erard a funding strategist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

Interviewee: Michael Erard

You know, right now, in the European Union, we're waiting for the relaunch of EU’s big set of funding priorities, which will be called Horizon Europe, and will provide something like 94 billion Euro of funding over seven years. And I was actually at a presentation last week, where someone was previewing all of these new themes and missions and quite a lot of them are, like highly political in nature. So making Europe competitive in, in technology, say, but there's also areas of Europe that are that are underdeveloped. And there's a correlation between the development status of these areas, and the resurgence of certain populist and nationalist political sentiments. And so there's some attention that's paid to how funding from the EU might stimulate some innovation, and some business in those areas to try to counter or neutralize some of those political sentiments.

Host: Nick Howe

The situation is broadly similar in the United States too, here’s Peg AtKisson, she runs a consulting firm that helps scientists and institutions write grants for funding in the US.

Interviewee: Peg AtKisson

Every federal agency in the United States were created by political entities, because these are taxpayer dollars that go into funding this research at that level. So it's had an impact from the earliest days and even in the 70s, after the National Science Foundation was fairly well established there started to be rumbles from Congress about ‘What are we doing here?’, ‘Where are we spending this money?,’ ‘What is the national interest?’

Host: Nick Howe

So what happens if your research interests don’t align with the specific priorities of the funders – after all they hold the keys to the bank. What power does a researcher have to ask independent questions?

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe

Like it or not many scientists seem to follow the old adage: if you can’t beat them, join them. If you want the money, you have to play the game – in other words, you gave to get political. And you can see that in their grants.

Interviewee: Peg AtKisson

For quite a while, people did not use the words ‘climate change’. The phrase that was often substituted was ‘geochemical cycling’ or ‘biogeochemical cycling’. That, you know, basically speaks to all the things that happen related to climate change without that trigger word, getting anyone's attention. And they started doing that, because one of our congress members started digging into any grant that said climate change. So framing can sometimes be a way around studying politically hot issues without showing that that's what you're doing. On the other hand, I've had some people I worked with, discuss their potential idea with a program officer and literally get told, that's a great idea. I cannot fund it in the current political climate.

Host: Nick Howe

The way you word your grants matters, because politics matters – and it doesn’t take much for an errant phrase to be amplified into a political headline.

Interviewee: Susannah Gal

I remember when I was at the NSF, there was a big uproar about a particular study, that the big terminology was ‘shrimps on a treadmill’.

Host: Nick Howe

This is Susannah Gal, a former program officer for the National Science Foundation.

Interviewee: Susannah Gal

And people were very upset, because they couldn't see the value of the science that was given – why would you want to put shrimp on a treadmill? There was a lot of concern about what the politics or the framing body was seeing as a value for that research based on this assessment of why would you want to study that.

Host: Nick Howe

To be clear the study wasn’t just about shrimps on a treadmill, it was about their responses to water quality, which can be important for things like aquaculture – farming fish. But nonetheless it was used by Republican senator Tom Coburn to point to wasteful government spending.

This sort of thing can have a real impact on research, scientists can become worried about how their research is perceived. This is in no small part why consultants like Peg exist.

Interviewee: Peg AtKisson

I will ask people to shift language in the abstract so that they do not become targets later or so that the program officers don't have to ask them later. Like I try to help my clients become a little bit more savvy about what is the political landscape in which they're asking for grant funding.

Host: Nick Howe

Scientists and funders have been playing this game for a long time, and to some extent it makes sense. Often taxpayers are the ones funding research, and so the argument is made that their elected representatives should stand up for the priorities of the electorate when divvying up those funds.

And sometimes funding politics has nothing of do with biased institutions it is just a competition between scientists, and scientists can play dirty too. It would be naïve to think that the best funded labs are always the ones which do the “best research”. Sometimes the most well-funded labs are simply the ones that know how to write the best grants – the ones who know how to play politics.

But there are times where no amount of creative grant writing and savvy competitiveness can help – situations in which avenues of research are just plain shut down – closed off by politics, and power, beyond the reach of even the most wily of scientists. More on that, coming up.

[Music]

Quotes

So it had the classic sort of chilling effect, where they were reluctant to fund any sort of research.

They decided that they would shut the science down.

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe

Back in 1996 a piece of legislation was added to the US spending bill as it went through congress. It became known as the Dickey Amendment.

Interviewee: Allen Rostron

And the amendment said that the money that was allocated to the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, it said that they can't use that money to advocate for gun control.

Host: Nick Howe

This is legal scholar Allen Rostron, who used to work for a gun control advocacy.

Interviewee: Allen Rostron

You could interpret that narrowly as meaning you can't fund research to write articles that are basically political propaganda or political advocacy. You can't have funded articles that are specifically saying we should enact this piece of legislation. Almost like lobbying on behalf of a particular piece of legislation, that would be the narrow interpretation of it. But it is somewhat ambiguous about where exactly it would cross the line into advocating for gun control.

Host: Nick Howe

From the perspective of the CDC though, it was quite clear what this meant.

Interviewee: Mark Rosenberg

This was a shot across the bow.

Host: Nick Howe

This is Mark Rosenberg. He was director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which oversaw gun violence research, when the Dickey Amendment was introduced.

Interviewee: Mark Rosenberg

They also took away all the money that we were using to do the gun violence prevention research. And this sent a clear message to the community, that this is not a good area to do research in, it's not a good area to base your scientific career in, because there won't be any government funding for it.

Host: Nick Howe

This is a bit different from saying: we don’t think your area of study is a priority. The implication, as far as researchers were concerned, is that the research is only a priority if it concludes what we want it to. In fact, according to Mark, the National Rifle Association, the NRA, who had lobbied for the amendment, were quite explicit about this.

Interviewee: Mark Rosenberg

It was a very direct threat, because they said, if you do gun violence prevention research, whether you do it at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, or whether you give grants to academic researchers to do it, we can make your life miserable. We will write a congressional letter of inquiry. And we will say in the letter that you were promoting and advocating gun control, basically, that you're lobbying for gun control. Well the CDC, we never lobbied, that was against the law. And so they knew that the letter would be baseless, but it could take weeks or months to respond. And if you’re an academic it could take weeks or months to answer those charges.

Host: Nick Howe

The NRA kept a sustained pressure on congress meaning that, as of 1996, research into gun violence funded by the CDC was… just gone. This was later extended to the National Institutes of Health, too. And whilst the amendment didn’t technically ban research, the agencies steered clear over worries about backlash. Even when the Obama administration effectively told the CDC to not regard the Dickey Amendment as a ban on research in 2012.

Interviewee: Allen Rostron

You know, you're somebody who works for the CDC or the NIH, and you're in charge of allocating this money, you might err on the side of caution of not wanting to get in trouble with really powerful forces, like people in Congress, or interest groups like the NRA, you don't want to offend them, and then have there be a backlash. And then suddenly, they're you know, they're cutting funding and that sort of thing.

Host: Nick Howe

This uneasy standoff continued until 2018 when several horrific shooting incidents compelled Congress to finally clarify the Dickey Amendment. Although they didn’t get rid of it, they did say that the CDC has the authority to carry out research on the causes of gun violence.

Interviewee: Allen Rostron

So a year after they made that change, Congress did allocate $25 million for the CDC and the NIH. And it was the first time in, you know, more than 20 years that there had been any funding through these institutions for research on gun violence. So it remains to be seen if that will become a regular thing, if Congress will continue to give money or increase it in the future, but at least for that year, they did allocate $25 million. So that was seen as a pretty significant step forward on this.

Host: Nick Howe

Power and politics permeate the professional life of a scientist. Even before you get into the lab – politics is shaping the game – and it has been for decades. But as influential as all of that is, let’s put it aside for a moment. Imagine yourself in the lab – you have an idea, you want to ask a question and you have the funds to do so – it is just you and the science – pure and simple – objective and empirical. Finally, the politics stops. Right?[Music]

Quotes

Scientists aren’t often that great at looking at political problems, because they like to see themselves as above such things.

In fact, science is actually of society, it reflects our perspectives, our identities, our values, our biases, our assumptions.

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe

I’ve talked a lot about politics and power at a large scale. Active interference by institutions, deliberate attempts to influence and tailor science to meet a particular agenda, and how science can come second to political motivations. But it isn’t just institutions that can have agendas. Scientists can too and they are often much less visible – in fact sometimes people don’t even know they have them. Here’s Alice Bell, a researcher of science policy.

Interviewee: Alice Bell

Scientists like to construct an identity of themselves, which I think is often very positive, and helps them do scientific work as standing outside of what they might dub a political realm. I think it's a useful ideal. I think it can get damaging when people kid themselves into thinking that they've done it when they haven't. And one thing you see a lot of, a lot of controversies coming up when people say things like, ‘we're scientists, we don't see race’. And people go, no, you're being massively racist, because you're not seeing racism, or you're not seeing sexism that is already embedded in your working culture.

Host: Nick Howe

The ways in which political issues in society are translated into science has become a really hot button topic, especially in recent years. And as the extent of structural inequity in society becomes more visible, it is inevitable that people start to turn that lens to science. Here’s Shobita again.

Interviewee: Shobita Parthasarathy

Why is it that we tend to answer questions, for example, using genetics and molecular biology techniques, for example? Right? Well, that has to do with the trends in particular fields. And it has to do with the kinds of questions that get asked by people who are leaders in that field and the leaders in the field are sort of setting the terrain for, for what are the important questions and what are the important issues.

Host: Nick Howe

The direction of research is influenced by powerful people, but not all people have access to power. Many studies demonstrate that on many levels societies exhibits systemic inequity. And in science, the result of this is that the people leading the way are by and large a pretty homogenous group – old white dudes. And that can influence the output of research. Take technology for example.

Interviewee: Shobita Parthasarathy

There’s this assumption that technology is morally neutral. Or often people go beyond that and say that technology by and large, is good, it's beneficial. And the problem with that is that because society, because power, because politics shapes the technology, then the technology actually reflects that the society and the power and the politics and because we know societies are structurally unequal, they have biases embedded in them, then it's not surprising that we see lots of technologies that reflect those biases and reflect those inequalities. An example that I often give is the spirometer. So, the spirometer is used to measure lung function, and when it was built, it was built with the assumption that black people were weaker. And so they're actually embedded in the technology is race correction software. So you flip a switch, and it sort of corrects for, you know, if you're non-white. And the assumption is that, you know, as I said, non-white people have weaker lungs. And not only is that incorrect, it's still in use today.

Host: Nick Howe

Inequity like this is born out all over science. For example, a 2011 a study showed that Black researchers were 10% less likely to receive funding from the US National Institutes of Health than their white counterparts – even after controlling for educational background, publication record, country of origin etc. A later study suggested this might in part be due to the topics that Black researchers choose to research, in essence the type of questions that Black researchers wanted to ask were not as valued by the predominantly white decision makers. And similar trends can be seen for other researchers of colour.

The same can be said for attainment – according to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, while 3.3% of the UK population is Black, only around 1.9% of academic staff are Black, and when you look at more senior roles many more white people fill those roles, while no Black people do.

Whatever the reason, this variation exists across the world, and it has been widely documented that this impacts research. Most clinical trial participants are white, most study animals tend to be male. These may not be deliberate discrimination – often they are pragmatic decisions made out of convenience, but they serve as a reflection of those carrying out the research. And a biased sample biases the experiment.

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe There may be a tendency for scientists to see themselves in a professional capacity as separate from mainstream society. To see their reasoning immune to systemic problems – to regard their analyses as apolitical. After all science is about objective empiricism – and society, and the inequity, politics and power that comes with it, is anything but. But what if by separating science from society, researchers are excluding key variables. What if they are not, in fact, protecting themselves, or science after all?

Interviewee: Shobita Parthasarathy

And if we can think about that more carefully, and also, as scientists be a little bit more reflective about it, then we can actually start to think about the systems that shape this kind of these kinds of decisions, and then do a better job, I think, of actually addressing the things that most of us do want to address these kinds of biases and structural inequalities. But if we assume that they're not there, then we tend to locate the politics in the individual or the bias in the individual, but by and large, the folks that might be producing technologies that we find problematic or saying things that we see as problematic. They're actually part of systems. And we don't understand that enough.

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe

This episode was produced by me Nick Howe, with editing from Noah Baker and Benjamin Thompson. it featured contributions from many people, including: Mayana Zatz, Shobita Parthasarathy, Michael Erard, Peg AtKisson, Susannah Gal, Allen Rostron, Mark Rosenberg, and Alice Bell. Thank you for listening and see you next time. [Music]

Transcript - Episode 3: Talking politics, talking science

Host: Nick Howe

In the past two episodes I’ve explored a myriad of links between science and politics, and the fact of the matter is that from individual scientists up to entire governments – politics shapes and moves research. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that this doesn’t cause problems, especially when you throw the media, specialist interest groups, heresay and gossip. After all, anything can get twisted in the rumour mill. So how should we talk about science?

[Music]

Quotes

Science likes to claim it’s value free, but it’s not.

Actually, good politics is more important than good science.

We’ve screwed this up, right? We’ve hung the readers out to dry.

[Music]

Interviewee: Deborah Blum

My name is Deborah Blum, and I'm the director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT.

Host: Nick Howe

Science journalists act as one of the most direct links between researchers and the rest of society. And after reporting on science for over 30 years, Deborah is under no illusions that science and politics are separate.

Interviewee: Deborah Blum

So I don't believe that science exists in a vacuum, separate from the rest of humanity or human endeavours, which include political issues, right, or politics and I don't think that's ever been true.

Host: Nick Howe

Science journalists think about the fuzzy line between scientific reporting and political reporting all the time – I’ve lost count of how many times my editor has asked me ‘what is the research angle on this story?’ And yet despite all that thought – many readers think that we get it wrong. Here’s Bruce Lewenstein, current academic and ex-journalist.

Interviewee: Bruce Lewenstein

So part of that part of the reason for arguing that science and politics are distinct is so that you can define things you don't like as being politics, and define things that you do like as science. So when someone makes a claim that a particular study has chosen the wrong standards of what should be counted as pollution, you can argue, ‘Oh those are only those were just political decisions’. The decisions that I've made are pure science. Or when you see a study you like, you can say, ‘Yes, those are good standards. Yes, I know, they're not the same ones that are used in the legislative system. But I think they're better standards’. Instead of acknowledging the political context that might have gone into setting those standards.

Host: Nick Howe

The tricky thing is that sometimes when a line is blurry, there is no hard and fast rule to point to.

Interviewee: Deborah Blum

It's always situational ethics, right? It’s never just, this is always right, or this is always wrong. And that's not fair. But it is true that a lot of times, we're going to make a decision in a case-by-case basis.

Host: Nick Howe

And that can confuse matters. The difficult thing is that, from the perspective of those outside the scientific community, and sometimes within, it can be easy to dismiss certain evidence as political when it conflicts with our core values.

Interviewee: Bruce Lewenstein

When people like what they're seeing, then they support it, and when they don't like what they're seeing, they don't support it, if it conflicts with other values, then science is only one set of values. Science likes to claim its value free, but it's not. It. It values knowledge over loyalty, over personal commitment, it values knowledge over faith. And for many people, emotion and faith are key drivers. It is as human for us to be emotional as it is for us to be rational.

Host: Nick Howe

Value systems are not constant. And so, a scientific result presented by someone with one system can be interpreted very differently by someone with a different set of values. The same data, the same words, can be warped based on how they are perceived.

Interviewee: Bruce Lewenstein

And so when something like climate change, which means that in order to control it, there is going to have to be more government control and more limitations on what you can do in business or with your land, or something like that people say you're attacking my independence. So that's just politics.

Host: Nick Howe

And, herein lies a danger. If people pick and choosing what they support, what they believe based on value systems and not a reasoned analysis of the evidence that opens the door for a bit of a buzzword. Politicization. More on that, coming up.

[Music]

Quotes

In the literature exist different definitions of politicization.

Politicization is really, really interesting because when you tend to hear it, you tend to think about it as a sort of epithet.

[Music]

Interviewee: Dan Sarewitz

The idea of politicization depends on a misunderstanding about what science is.

Host: Nick Howe

This is science and society researcher Dan Sarewitz.Interviewee: Dan Sarewitz

When I say you're politicizing the science, what I'm really saying is, you're taking those sacrosanct pure facts, and you’re distorting them, or you're misstating them to achieve your rhetorical goals, or your political goals or your policy goals. The problem with that is that anytime science is involved in politics, it is politicized, inherently politicized, because you are drawing statements of facts into arguments about values and preferences about how the world should be.

Host: Nick Howe

Deliberately distorting scientific evidence to support an agenda – politicisation at its worst by those nasty politicians. But it can work both ways, and scientists do it too.

Interviewee: Dan Sarewitz

We sometimes take political issues that are about values and make them seem as if they're issues of facts and who is asserting facts most correctly. So, I'll use simple example that right now is flaring up in the pages of the magazine I edit, having to do with the issue of fish pain, and animal welfare – can fish feel pain? And it turns out that there are scientists who are very skeptical of the idea that fish can feel pain, because of their understanding of what pain means as a neurological phenomenon. And there's scientists who feel that fish can clearly feel pain because of a different understanding of neurological phenomenon. And those scientists accuse one another of politicizing the science because of their concerns for different issues. Some of the scientists are more concerned with the importance of preserving freedom to for anglers, which they see as not only an important social activity, but one that's environmentally important too. Others who are concerned with animal welfare feel like that animals shouldn't be subjected to any suffering. And yet, if you ask scientists about this all say, well, ultimately, it's subjective. We can never know, because we can never be in the brain of a fish.

Host: Nick Howe

So in case you missed that, and the rest of this series, it’s messy, right? Science and politics, science and society, it’s a mess. And that mess, depending on your values of course, can get an awful lot more damaging than a spats over sprats.

[Protest clip]

Host: Nick Howe

What you’re hearing here are people at the Indiana State House, in the US, protesting against the wearing of masks. There have been similar protests across the world. In the UK…

[Protest clip]

Host: Nick Howe

France…

[Protest clip]

Host: Nick Howe

…the list goes on

Now, there’s a lot of things going on here – questions of personal freedoms, medical exemption, even accessibility – but right at the centre of anti-masker movement – amongst the throng of contentiousness is politicization of science and evidence.And, let’s be clear at this point, scientists have a strong consensus on this – masks do help prevent the spread of coronavirus. They can save lives. So why the backlash?

Well partly it’s how politicians, and other influential people, portray this evidence.

Interviewee: Hannah Schmid-Petri

Trump and his supporters are Corona deniers, and are especially against masks, for example, or other preventive measures.

Host: Nick Howe

This is Hannah Schmid-Petri, a researcher of politicization.

Interviewee: Hannah Schmid-Petri

And he regularly attacked science and scientific advisors who try to convince him of the necessity and importance of preventive measures. So I think the most current example is his use of a quote of Mr. Fauci in an election commercial to create impression that Mr. Fauci praises the efforts of Trump and the fight against corona. And he took the quote out of the context. And Mr. Fauci stated that he never said this that way. So I think this is a very typical example of politicization because a politician picked a quote of a scientist to support his standpoints and just merits in the fight against the pandemic.

Host: Nick Howe

And you don’t have to outright misquote someone to politicize research. Sometime simply the context in which evidence is viewed can cause radically different outcomes.

Interviewee: Dan Sarewitz

Just look at the difference between Norway and Sweden, for example, right? They pursued radically different approaches, based on consultation with their experts in the context of their political and social cultures. And those have led to different sets of actions and different outcomes. So yeah, if you really want to get a sense of why a kind of simplistic view of why the experts must inform politics and policy is sort of not very helpful. COVID is a fabulous example of how politics, uncertainty and science interact, and claims of expertise can be made on behalf of all sorts of different and contrary actions.

Host: Nick Howe

In the practice of law, there’s something known as Gibson’s law that states For every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD. According to Gibson’s law if I want to make a a point in court, or a political point for that matter, I can probably find some evidence to back up my position. And when science is politicized that is what happens. But the thing is, it’s not quite true, is it? Sure there is a lot of disagreement in science, and if you go looking you can likely find experts to disagree with others, but equal and opposite…? More, coming up.

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe Deborah Blum – MIT professor of journalism – got her graduate degree in science journalism back in 1982. And throughout her career she has witnessed first-hand how scientific issues were talked about in the media. Take climate change for example.

Interviewee: Deborah Blum

At that time, science journalism really followed what I think of is, you know, it was the political model of reporting, right? There's always two sides. Doctor A says this, Doctor B says this, and you didn't really, clue the reader into which side was the consensus side so much, it was just there's always two sides to a story, as in the US politics, there's the Democrats and there’s the Republicans, and unfortunately, never the twain seems to meet.

Host: Nick Howe

This so-called political model of reporting exists to help counteract a journalists’ bias to present the argument and let the reader make up their mind. But for a story about climate change – that can cause problems.

Interviewee: Deborah Blum

So a lot of science writers in order to get, I’m air quoting this, the other side, you would interview scientists that were funded by the coal industry or the gas industry, but were there to assure you that climate change, you know, was an uncertainty. And, you know, there was not all scientists didn't believe in it. And there was much debate and a lot of stuff that turned out to be mostly not reliable information.Host: Nick Howe

And it got to the point where Deborah realised that the whole industry of scientific journalism was making a mistake.

Interviewee: Deborah Blum

At some point, we started having discussion in the National Association of Science Writers, and I was president of that group, right in the early aughts of the 21st century. And we sort of say, well, we screwed this up, right? We're giving people the inaccurate impression, that there's this huge debate when in fact there's this growing consensus, and we've just hung the readers out to dry. And we've done that, in part because we're covering this like politics, right?

Host: Nick Howe

Something had to change – and it did, dramatically.

Interviewee: Deborah Blum

You start to see science writers just write about climate change as if it's a fact. The same way that in the annals of public health, you started seeing seatbelts mentioned in auto accident stories ‘were they wearing in a seatbelt?’ Right. And that, to me, represents a profound shift.

Host: Nick Howe

For Deborah, this shift wasn’t a political one – it was just good journalism.

Interviewee: Deborah Blum

If we're good as journalists, we try to cover reality, and we owe our readers or listeners or viewers, we owe them reality, right? We owe them an accurate reflection of what's going on. Not that science gets everything right, every step of the way. And so you have to acknowledge that too. But the consensus is squarely that this is real. And we try to reflect accurately where the weight of the evidence is.

Host: Nick Howe

To Deborah, communicating not just the facts but also the certainty – the level of consensus – that is vital if you want to about science objectively and accurately.

Interviewee: Deborah Blum

Smart journalists do their homework, they figure out where the weight of the evidence is. And they report from that position of scientific strength, and that is actually contrary to what any Republican would tell you in the United States of America. That's actually apolitical reporting.

Host: Nick Howe

But in a world where science is intertwined with politics, where everybody has an agenda and where values frame every story – even attempts to be apolitical can be interpreted as something quite different.

Interviewee: Deborah Blum

It's muddied by the swirls of politics that you know continually spiral through society. And so it interferes, I think, quite often politics interferes far too often with people's ability to actually see the reality.

Host: Nick Howe

It seems that at every stage, the authority of science, evidence and expertise is only one step away from being tarnished – being used and abused to push agendas. And any attempt to solve this by crudely separate science and politics – well that is not much more helpful than it is realistic.

So what do we do? Can there be such a thing as an evidence-based society? And to be clear when I say that, I don’t mean a society based on science, just that when evidence could prevent real harm – like in the pandemic, for instance – how do we use that evidence to help? That’s coming up next.[Music]

Interviewee: Beth Simone Noveck

So it's through more democratization and greater openness that we're going to have more accountability for decision making.

Host: Nick Howe

This is Beth Simone Noveck, a researcher who focuses on how to tackle societal problems, who has advised government herself. Politicians should of course make political decisions, but they should be upfront about what their basing this on.

Interviewee: Beth Simone Noveck

I think that’s what it comes down to. It's perfectly fine to say I am making this decision based on values. But we need transparency and how we do that we need to actually have institutions that are set up in a way that allow us to tap into an evidence base, and then to have transparency in how the decision is made, whether it's with regard to or by ignoring the evidence base, that should be clear and accessible to people.

Host: Nick Howe

Now it’s easy to dismiss this idea. Why would politicians show what their basing their decisions on if it could be used against them? But in fact, in many places this is happening.

Interviewee: Beth Simone Noveck

Take Taiwan, for example, where they've started a program called ‘vTaiwan’. And they have made now over two dozen pieces of national legislation with engagement of hundreds of thousands of citizens through a transparent process that works online.

Host: Nick Howe

But to achieve this, there needs to a shift in how we define expertise.

Interviewee: Beth Simone Noveck

That term expertise often gets very distorted to mean a specific kind of credentialed knowhow of people with certain kinds of degrees, when expertise is really something that we have to understand very broadly, to include people's experience, to include experiential wisdom to include their situational awareness, we've typically thought about expertise and therefore about the role of science in political decision making much too narrowly, and conflated that with the with a set of professions or a set of professional degrees.

Host: Nick Howe

To put it bluntly – science – its not all about you. Here is Dan Sarewitz again.

Interviewee: Dan Sarewitz

At a certain point, you just have to realize that science is part of the mix. It's not this magic thing.

Host: Nick Howe

Opening up political decision making to more kinds of expertise can have a surprising impact.

Interviewee: Beth Simone Noveck

In governing, we're seeing lots of examples of when governments are doing it right, opening up how they work, listening and working with people who have expertise, not in the credential sense, but in the sense of lived experience. So you take the federal government, which back in 2010, started in the United States started a platform called challenge.gov, to ask people to help solve problems with and for the government. And you've had over 1,000 of these prized-backed challenges that have been run in the United States. And they're popular now all over the world to get unusual suspects, again, not the people who are typically called upon on the Sunday talk shows or who are ‘the insiders’ to actually help with solving problems.

Host: Nick Howe

By valuing a broader range of expertise, you allow others to pick up the elements of a problem that science and scientists just aren’t properly equipped to tackle. Here’s Dan again.

Interviewee: Dan Sarewitz

In these complex situations, scientists are often asked to do a political job. And so the thing we need to do is be clear about that. And to recognise that, that actually good politics is more important than good science. So there's an irony here that I think needs to be kind of unraveled. And that unraveling is going to require more humility around what science can and can't do in the political realm, and more, putting politicians feet to the fire. So they actually have to say what it is that they're after, rather than saying, well, I'll just bring in my expert to say why my side is right.

Host: Nick Howe

More putting politician’s feet to the fire. Huh.

[Music]

Host: Nick Howe

If you had to chose one place in which Nature has a clear political position - it is that we believe policy is stronger when it is supported by evidence. But if we care about achieving that goal, the evidence suggests that we have to think holistically. To look beyond just the pure output of research. We have to look at how research is funded, who is carrying it out, the values they hold, the systems they operate within, the balance of the evidence, and prevalence of power. To put it bluntly – the politics. Here’s Bruce Lewenstein again.

Interviewee: Bruce Lewenstein

I think the world would be a better place if more people had access to the kind of reliable knowledge that science produces. In order for that to happen, people have to have a much better understanding of what science is. And I do not mean a specific content of science, I do not mean an idealised hypothetico-deductive method of science. I mean, the complex social reality of how science has produced. The fact that politics is deeply ingrained in how science gets funded. The fact that competition between research groups, is not particularly different than competition between football clubs. That human emotion drives many scientists, that scientists choose problems based on particular concerns. If you talk to cancer researchers find out how many of them got into the field because someone in their family had cancer. Right? They didn't choose this at random. They chose it because this is a field that matters to them.

Host: Nick Howe

Science, society and politics – they are inseparable. Now this could be a good or it could be a bad thing – but either way it is a true thing – and it is something which has real consequences. So, at Nature we’re going to carry on talking about it. I hope you’ll join us.

[Music up]

Host: Nick Howe

“Stick to the science” was produced by me Nick Howe, with editing from Noah Baker and Benjamin Thompson. It featured: Deborah Blum, Bruce Lewenstein, Dan Sarewitz, Hannah Schmid-Petri, Shobita Parthasarathy, and Beth Simone Noveck. If you enjoyed this series, tell us about it, there’s a link to a survey in the shownotes. Also if these kinds of topics have caught your interest, then I suggest checking out ‘the Received Wisdom’ podcast. It’s hosted by Shobita, who you heard from throughout this series. Thanks for listening.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03067-w

This series was produced by Nick Howe, with editing from Noah Baker and Benjamin Thompson. It featured many contributors, including: Deborah Blum, Bruce Lewenstein, Daniel Sarewitz, Hannah Schmid-Petri, Shobita Parthasarathy, Beth Simone Noveck, Alice Bell, Anna Jay, Melinda Baldwin, Magdalena Skipper, Steven Shapin, David Edgerton, Chiara Ambrosio, Mayana Zatz, Michael Erard, Peg AtKisson, Susannah Gal, Allen Rostron and Mark Rosenberg.

Subjects

Nature Careers

Jobs

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing

Search

Quick links